"I think we're going to have a good team this year," said Vaitai. "We've got around five or six guys returning on our defense from last year, but on offense it's just me, our tight end and our two receivers, number 23 and number three, will be the returning starters. So on offense it's going to be us four returning starters and everybody else is being bumped up from the JV."
Vaitai's mobility and strength as a run blocker is immediately apparent from his highlight footage. He never quits. After knocking down the D-linemen in front of him he is off like a heat-seeking missal in search of his next victim. It only took Mendenhall four plays to realize what kind of a player this junior footballer was.
"It was kind of our offensive line motto that we don't stop until the running backs stop and then we go a little extra after that," said Vaitai. "During practice last season, our coaches told us to keep it in our heads that the running backs are fighting to get every yard, so if we can get him more yards he'll put up more points and everybody will be happy at the end of the game. We have to execute every play to the best of our abilities.
"Our offense is based on the run and we've had a lot of good running backs come through our school. I think I'm going to have to work on my pass-pro because this past year I was kind of a bit slow in moving my feet, so I'm going to try and work on that during the spring because we're going to be running more pass plays next season. I think it will help me out and I still need to work a little on my run blocking, but I need to work more on my pass blocking. If I can do that than I think I'll be pretty good coming up."
Vaitai still has a lot of work to do in terms of refining his game, not because he has any glaring deficiencies, but because he is still very new to his position. Vaitai only played offensive guard for one year as an upperclassman, but in that year he has already made a big impact.
"I kind of played offensive line my freshman year," said Vaitai. "When I played my sophomore year I just played defense because at Trinity you can only play one way because we have so many kids that come out for the team. So I played defense my sophomore season, but at the end of my sophomore season the coaches switched me to offense, so last year was my first year and I just trying to get the hang of it.
"After game day on Friday night we come in on Saturday morning and we'll be able to evaluate ourselves. We have different people counting knockdowns and pancakes. I have no clue on how many I had. I don't really grade myself on that kind of stuff. I don't really think about that stuff because I'm busy trying to see what I did wrong and how I can improve myself."
In addition to spending time in the film room, Vaitai does a lot of work in the weight room. He is a motivated weight lifter and his efforts have already yielded good results.
"I'm always in the weight room," said Vaitai. "Our offensive line coach is also our strength and conditioning coach, so there is no way we can slack off in there either before school or after school. Just working out with him makes you want to work out harder even if he's not there, so I think that's a big part of my ability.
"We were maxing out [bench press] and I popped out 385 and our coach made me stop because he didn't want me to mess up my back before the season," Vaitai said. "On my squat my coach made me stop at 340. I can squat more than that but my coach didn't want me to hurt my back."
Vaitai received some local and state-wide recognition for his hard work and strong play. He, along with his entire offensive line, was named as first team all-district. Vaitai was also named to the Texas all-junior team. As a senior next year, Vaitai will be the new offensive line leader because his cousin Saia Falahola is graduating and will be playing at Arizona State in the fall.
"Last year my cousin was our offensive line captain," Vaitai said. "Every time in the huddle before we would get the play in, he would tell us and motivate us to keep running and to keep going and don't stop until the whistle blows. Being an underclassman, I didn't want to upset anybody because this was his last year and we could get a state championship. Next year I'm going to have to be that guy who takes on that role."
Upon learning of Vaitai's commitment to BYU, Falahola was a bit disappointed by his cousin's decision to become a Cougar. Falahola wanted to continue playing football with Vaitai at ASU.
"He and our running back that started for us last year are going to ASU," said Vaitai. "He's been given me such a hard time since I've gotten back from BYU. I got back and I told my cousin, he was the first one I told, and he didn't talk to me for three days he was so upset.
"When I told him he just started yelling at me and said, ‘You knew our [ASU] coach was looking at you and was trying to talk to you and went and committed early.' I was like, ‘You knew I was going to go there anyways,' but he just got angry and didn't talk to me for three days. He was like, ‘You were supposed to go to school with me and we were supposed to play together.' I just told him that I was going to go on my mission any ways and after that he was fine and it didn't really matter. He just wanted to play with me in college and that's why he was a bit upset, but he's talking to me now."
Vaitai may not be playing football with his cousin at ASU, but he will be playing with two first cousins on his father's side of the family in Manase and Matangi Tonga.
"It's fun!" said an excited BYU fullback Manase Tonga following BYU's Blue-White game. "We've got another family member on the Cougar squad. He's an animal and the thing is, growing up he was always the shy, quiet type and then all of a sudden he just blew up and became just this big guy. On film, he's supposed to be really good. He has a lot of raw talent and he can help out our team a lot. I'm just excited we have another family member on the team, he's my first cousin. His dad and my mom are brother and sister.
"When he committed I was surprised. I thought he was lying but then I talked to him and he said he really did commit, and I thought that was really cool. I think the best part about his decision to come to BYU was that I didn't really have a part in it. I mean I did tell him directly to come out and commit. I think most of the reason why he did came from the example of our players here at BYU, and I know he was very impressed with our coaching staff here and that was one thing he told me. He said he was very impressed with our whole offensive coaching staff and I think that helped him in his decision as well."
Tonga may not think that he played a role in Vaitai's decision to come to BYU, but it turns out that he and his brother played a key role in their cousin's decision to commit to BYU.
"Another reason why I picked BYU is because of them," said Vaitai. "I know with them around, I won't feel homesick. They'll be there, and it will be just like here at home because we hang out around my dad's side of the family a lot. I'll have some family up there so I won't feel left out, and I think it'll be good because they're two great guys. I'm just grateful that we've all been able to play for the same school."
Vaitai was attracted to BYU for more than the family connections. He was also drawn to the coaching staff, facilities and acade
"Friday when I got [to Provo], I just went straight up to the offensive line meeting and had a chance to watch film with them," said Vaitai. "I was sitting in the back of the classroom and was able to listen to Coach Grimes talk to his offensive line. After the meeting me and Coach Grimes were walking through the coaches offices to meet all the coaches and I had a chance to stop by and shake hands with Coach Mendenhall. He asked me then to meet with him on Saturday morning around 8:00 with my dad.
"That morning me and my dad came up to campus and we had a chance to talk to [Coach Mendenhall] and he was explaining all the requirements and expectations to me, that's when he offered me. I called my mom about it and then I asked my dad and he said the same thing as my mom. They just told me that I needed to do what I felt was right, so after that I had a chance to go back into his office and explain to him why I've chosen BYU. Afterwards my dad was just so happy, and after talking to Coach Mendenhall I felt it was the right thing to do. After I committed, it just made me feel like I did the right thing. I made my parents so happy and proud, and my dad was happy and crying. I called my mom back and told her that I had committed, and she was so happy and congratulated me."
Joining Manaaki Vaitai will be his older brother Sione Vaitai, a 6-foot-3, 225-pound safety that is being looked at by Tulane and Tulsa Universities among others. Sione will come to BYU as a walk-on.
"He's going to be turning 19 in November of this year, so I don't know if he's just going to go on his mission or just wait and try to come up to BYU then go on his mission," Vaitai said. "This past season I think he played strong safety. He tries so hard and he practices really well. He doesn't really talk to me to much about football. He mostly tells me how excited he is about going on his mission and stuff."
Following graduation, Manaaki will come to BYU and redshirt a year prior to serving a full-time LDS mission.
"I turn 18 that April after I graduate so I'll be able to go play for a single season and I'm thinking about redshirting my freshman year," said Vaitai. "I'll turn 19 at the end of my freshman year and then I'll go on my mission for two years, and then I'll come back and get in shape and play for four years."